Tough Choices to Make
Why not have your first baby at 60, when your husband is already dead and your career is over? Then you can really devote yourself to it.
- Fran Lebowitz
How do you talk to mothers when you meet them in a social situation? Begin with the standard "And what do you do?" and you'll find you have just asked one of the most politically and emotionally loaded questions of the decade. The results can be diabolical.
The reply may be, "I'm a mother," or, "I'm just a mother," both of which are conversational death. It is rare to meet a mother who didn't utter that response without a hint of apology and inferiority in her voice. She will be well accustomed to people saying "Oh" and moving right along. You may be desperate not to react like that, to try and say something positive and sound genuinely interested in the children, but strangely it seems there's no way to rescue the situation without sounding patronising.
Then again, she may answer that she is the chief executive officer of a multinational company. But, equally, she won't be able to tell you that without either betraying a hint of guilt or searching your expression intently for any sign that you don't approve. She will even leave a gap in the conversation which she expects you to fill with an inquiry about her child-care arrangements. And although she won't tell you, it is a question she will resent, especially as the question is never asked of her partner, whose parenting responsibilities she considers equivalent to hers.
All mothers will agree that when they reveal something of their style of mothering, judgments will be made - but that's about all they will agree on. The most bitter judgments are no longer those levelled by the people who're not mothers against those who are - that argument is virtually over. The contest now is between the two groups of mothers.
Mothers at home suspect that mothers who work regard them as vegetative; uninteresting and unhappy. Mothers who work suspect mothers at home regard them as not very good mothers. "If you choose to work," one friend complains, "you pick up this undercurrent from other mothers that you've taken the more selfish option."
Oops. The first rule of engagement for this battle has just been broken. Mothers everywhere will be reaching for their pens to write the type of letter which Dunedin writer Francesca Holloway received last year after she published A Working Mother's Handbook. "The reaction," Holloway remembers, "was: 'How dare you call it a working mother's handbook, all mothers work'. It came from full-time mothers who felt the title was a putdown."
The politically correct terminology, if you want to avoid this wrangle, is to describe working mothers as being in the paid work-force, or, as they do in California, mothers who work outside the home.
Smoothing over the argument with acceptable terminology, however, doesn't smooth over the argument. The issue clearly divides mothers, as the statistics show, straight down the middle. At the 1991 census, 51% of women with children recorded that they were in the paid work-force. (That compared with 39% in 1976.) The age of the children, however, was a major influence on the decision to work for money or work at home. In 1986 40% of women whose youngest child was aged between one and four and 25% of women with babies under one year were in the paid work-force. Between 1986 and 1991 it was the women with babies who showed a slight increase in the likelihood of being employed, while the other groups remained relatively static.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the mothers more likely to be in the paid work-force were those with post-school qualifications whose child was of school age and whose partner also worked. Her participation in the paid work-force was twice as likely if her partner earned less than $20,000, but only half as likely if he earned more than that.
Interestingly, women with no partner, or an unemployed partner, were much more likely to be out of the paid work-force than in it.
The numbers in the at-home and not-at-home camps may stack up equally but their respective rights, some argue, do not. There are those who say that over the past decade the needs and demands of mothers in the paid work-force have taken precedence over the needs and demands of mothers at home, leaving the latter group even more marginalised than before.
Claire Aumonier, a Mount Albert mother who is active in the New Zealand Home Schooling Association, certainly feels that imbalance. Last year she launched a political lobby group dedicated to redressing it. WAM (Woman As Mothers) has three primary objectives: to secure the possibility for women to choose to mother their children as their primary occupation; to raise the status of mothering as it is reflected in legislation and social and economic conditions and to achieve equity for women as mothers. Helen Clark, who has chosen not to have children, is WAM's patron.
Aumonier concedes it's easy to misconstrue what the group is about; that it could be misinterpreted as encouraging the view that a mother's place is at home whether she chooses it or not. "It's sensitive with women," she says, "because naturally we don't want any forces brought on us which will return us to the 50s - I least of all. If you're not conversant with the thrust of WAM you could jump to that conclusion." Instead, WAM's thrust is to raise the status of full-time mothering for those who choose it as an option, without taking anything away from the mothers who choose to work outside the home.
"We must support the mothers who choose paid employment and those women must support those who choose not to [be in paid employment]," Aumonier stresses. "The opportunity for women to join the paid work force has been supported; it's socially acceptable and there are support networks for those women. Women who have chosen to put paid work on hold have not been supported in any way whatsoever. That's why WAM is more focused on the latter group at this stage."
For Aumonier and her group, which includes six administrators and 300 or so subscribers, the point is to protect one of the choices they believe should always be attractive to women: full-time mothering. Members tend to be full-time mothers and women who were full-time mothers who've gone back to work and found they've been disadvantaged by their time away from the career path. Their goal is not only to protect the choice to be at home, but also to make that option more attractive. Paying mothers is one option. Providing community centres where mothers meet regularly, take lessons, get fit or drink martinis together, is another - a sort of gentleman's club for mothers.
"Women," says Aumonier, "are often making the choice not to throw themselves into full-time parenting because of the social stigma and the lack of financial security." How interesting that the role this generation's mothers' mothers filled unquestioningly is now one which carries a social stigma.
"Women should start requiring of the men whom they partner that they understand these issues and understand and respect a woman's need to make the choice freely," stresses Aumonier. "I know men who pressure their wives to return to work within three months [of giving birth] and I also know men who feel uncomfortable that their wives are in the paid work force. To me it's the issue in our community."
Last year the New Zealand Council for Educational Research published a report titled Employment And Childcare Arrangements Among Families. Its author, Valerie Podmore, surveyed 60 families with 5-year-old children and reported a "very wide range of views" on the question of mothers with young children being in paid work. Twelve per cent of the women surveyed and 24% of the men were "strongly supportive" of the idea; 17% of the women and 26% of the men said it was "all right". In most cases approval depended on the number of hours the mother worked - part-time work gained a higher acceptance than full-time. Accessibility to quality child care also influenced the judgment. "Strong disapproval" of mothers being in paid employment came from 6% of the parents surveyed. Their comments included: "sometimes that's where some of the problems with children start" and "children go off the rails".
As Francesca Holloway recalls, "When I had a child, the term 'working mother' had a negative connotation. It was considered there were all these social ills because of working mothers." Yet, as Podmore reported, 58% of the mothers and 40% of the fathers surveyed acknowledged that mothers entered the paid work-force out of economic necessity, noting the difficulty of saving for children's education, medical bills and their own retirement on only one income.
Societal and political changes necessitate practical considerations. With the national average of 2.5 children, a mother who had her first child in her 20s will find her mothering role is over by the time she's in her 40s. She has 20 years left to fill before retirement, for which she also has to save. Twenty years away from her profession would make it impossible to return after her children are grown. What's more, with one in three marriages breaking down, she can't risk losing her ability to provide for herself and her children as best she can, should her partner prematurely vacate the marital nest.
As Claire Aumonier observes, "I don't think the majority of women are in the paid work-force for satisfaction, because they do such boring jobs. It can't be for job satisfaction. Yet those who mother full time also struggle to get job satisfaction because of what they experience [financial dependency and social isolation] and they cease to be interesting people to their contemporaries - we're losing every which way."
Since WAM's launch last August, however, not a lot has happened. Aumonier was immobilised through illness and what plans it does have she doesn't feel free to talk about, yet. But while Aumonier et al are careful not to be judgmental about which choices mothers make, she is aware that tolerance is rare. The gulf between the two groups, she acknowledges, is real. "It's hard to understand why it's like that," she says. "Women don't have faith in each other to unite. How women became so competitive with each other I don't know. There are stresses and strains with both choices. A full-time mother is exhausted at 11 pm; a paid-job mother is exhausted at 11 pm. Both have the same degree of stress. Mothering full time - if you do it seriously - is more stressful than the majority of paid jobs, while the stress for paid working mothers comes from juggling."
Part of the conflict between mothers who do and mothers who don't stems from each group's insecurity about the choices they have made. Insecure people seek affirmation, and sometimes that affirmation is derived from criticising people who have made different choices. Many simply don't have the courage of their mothering convictions. There shouldn't be a conflict between the two groups, says Aumonier. "It's only a conflict if one group doesn't want the other to get ahead."
Witness the delicious spat which recently boiled over onto the pages of the Bulletin, Australia's weekly news magazine. It began when Kerry-Anne Walsh, a Canberra-based journalist, penned an open letter to Anne Summers, a leading feminist and editor of the Good Weekend magazine, after reading a transcript of what Summers said to her deputy editor Deborah Tarrant whom she had recently sacked. According to the passage Walsh quoted, Summers had complained that Tarrant had let her down after she, Summers, had been so tolerant of all the time that Tarrant had off to attend to her children.
Walsh attacked Summers for even daring to raise the issue of Tarrant's children, and then went on to describe the rigours of a working mother's day which, she wrote, "bears little resemblance to others' lives [example: 9.30am - 4pm or so work (no lunch); 6 - 8pm feed, bath, help with homework, bed down children; 8.30 - ?, maybe finish that feature, make those work telephone calls; midnight - 3am, often tend to sick or upset child; 6.30am greet the day and start again].
"The working mother," she continued, "pressured by voices in her head and a whispering society, strives to be better than good, to somehow make up for wanting it all: a rewarding career and a rewarding family life." Walsh signed off: "Yours in solidarity, a fulfilled working mother." A response quickly arrived on the editor's desk from a Susan Rowe of New South Wales who signed herself "a fulfilled worker" and who complained of yet "another diatribe on how busy and hard the working mother's life is. We have all been harangued about this often enough." Pointing out that women have the absolute right to choose to have children, Rowe continued, "I am sick of hearing/reading women with children banging the same old drum... stop snivelling and expecting some kind of award and get on with it."
Here, interestingly, the debate takes an unexpected turn. It's true that since mothers began re-entering the work force in significant numbers we've been berated with the details of their superwoman status. We've read all the surveys showing that for every three hours extra she spends at the office he does three minutes more around the house and how, as was reported in the Sunday Star-Times recently, "the list of tasks a working mother will plough through in one 16-hour day rivals the work days of the satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution." But mothers Metro spoke to who work outside the home do so because they find that option less stressful, and they are more than willing to hand out the accolades to women who mother full time.
Giselle McLachlan, mother of two-year-old Andrew, returned to her job as a lawyer six months after his birth. "I do find working less stressful than being permanently at home," she says. "The stress there comes from the responsibility of being the-person-at-home. Part of that is the stress you put on yourself, doubting yourself and judging yourself for being there."
Still, she is aware of the antagonism she sometimes fields from mothers-at-home: "I got it from one person who was quite open about it. Her view was that staying at home was harder and going to work was easier. It could have been that she was being antagonistic but I didn't take the bait. I thought that was fair, because to me the variety you get in your life from working does make it easier. You don't have that trapped feeling that I've heard about. I acknowledged it, so there was no issue between us."
For Giselle, returning to work was based largely on a decision about her personal and career development. Given that her husband Neil is a partner in another law firm, the short-term need to earn money has not been the only consideration. "In the short term," she says, "work provides me with mental stimulation and socialising - in the broader sense. In law it's important to keep up to date and working is the easiest way of doing that. In the long term it's an investment in myself so that as the child - or children - grow up I've continued to develop independently of the mother role."
She also felt that giving up her career entirely would have strained her marriage. "If you leave your career," she says, "it may change who you are and that brings stresses with it as your partner has to adjust to the idea he has a different wife - unless it was your mothering side he married you for. For Neil and I, the fact that I work is important in our relationship."
Andrew spends one day a week in a crèche and for the remainder of the time has a nanny. "I have no guilt about that at all," says Giselle, "I honestly believe he's better off having both of us. Our family has been fortunate to have a capable and reliable nanny. When she arrives on Monday morning she takes a fresher interest in what he's doing. Andrew has a great life."
Gayatri Jaduram, also a lawyer, has faced a similar experience.
Lawyer Gayatri Jaduram found being at home for four months after the birth of her son Kiran stressful and longed for the day she could return to work: "I really did feel cooped up in the home. Being at home with children is harder than going out to work. I really admire people who stay home and look after children. It's hard work."
Having entered law school comparatively late, at 25, she didn't wish to take time out of her career to be at home with children. Nor could she envisage having to be financially dependent on her partner. Kiran, who is now 10 months, attends the Kindercare crèche, alongside the Coopers and Lybrand building where Gayatri works. "I feel more comfortable having him close," she says. "There are other children and adults around, which creates a stimulating environment, something I feel I couldn't offer him all day if I was at home with him. That's one reason I didn't have a nanny, as well as the cost. Kiran enjoys going to the crèche, although there are obvious downsides, especially this winter with the colds and flus which are going around."
She doesn't feel Kiran has missed out because both his parents are working: "When we get home we usually have a couple of hours of quality time together. If I take work home I usually leave it until he's in bed. I'm very conscious of having that time with him."
Neither woman expresses the regret or pangs of guilt which mothers-at-home are certain they should feel. Feeling guilty about leaving the care of one's children to someone else for certain hours of the day is something we all understand. But, as the two women we have just met describe, feeling guilty about not doing that is just as real - something which is peculiar to this generation of mothers. For unlike their own mothers, whose traditional mothering role was prescribed, they have more choices; were encouraged to stay longer at school, to attain university degrees and to enter the professions. After all that expense and expectation, can they justify giving it away to be at home mothering? Hence the guilt for those who do, and hence the additional pressure not to.
Yet the reality for well-paid professional women like McLachlan and Jaduram is worlds away from that experienced by women for whom working outside the home means a long, tedious day on the factory line or behind a shop counter: mothers who don't earn enough to pay for a cleaner or a cook, let alone a nanny.
Friday morning, and a meeting with a mother at Cafe Botannix, at the Palmers Garden Centre in Shore Road, Remuera. It is surprising to find so many women meeting here for morning coffee, but less surprising, given that this is the heart of the eastern suburbs, how glamorous they all look. Some have their children with them. Clearly these are mothers who are not in paid work.
My companion's thesis is that all women want balance in their lives. She works, part time from home, and what she earns is substantially consumed by what she pays for child care, but she sees that as paying for the balance in her life. Casting her gaze towards our fellow cafe patrons, she comments on what she calls "the Remuera syndrome".
"They're still paying for help but they don't work; they don't need to work to get the space in their life. They are economically fortunate that they can afford the help which other women have to work to get. They call themselves full-time mothers, but they're not at home full time. They may be going to university, or to the gym, or shopping. Yet they look down their noses at mothers who work.
Penelope Leach, a leading British commentator on baby and child-rearing issues, describes the same phenomenon in her latest work Children First. "To many people 'a good mother' is still a full-time mother," she writes, "though curiously, a woman can spend all day at a tennis club without losing that title, but loses it if she spends half the day at work."
Leach also maintains that "wherever extensive surveys have been carried out amongst mothers who are seeking or using day care in order to go out to work, the results show that many would prefer to remain at home during their children's first years if they could afford to do so." Of course, she continues, we cannot assume that every woman who expresses such a sentiment would act upon it if she got the chance. In the politically inconceivable event of being offered financial support for personal child care, some of those women would doubtless find the provision inadequate, life at home intolerable and the lure of careers and companionship irresistible. But what if a period of home-based, child-centred life was not only affordable but companionable, if deferred or interrupted careers were guaranteed and, perhaps above all, if such arrangements existed not for a special category of women called mothers but for a special category of people called parents?"
Trish Mark says she's not one to go and have coffee with the girls. "That's nice every now and then but to me you've got to be achieving something." At dinner parties she gravitates towards the men because she's easily bored locked in conversations with women which too frequently centre on children.
Trish Mark, mother of Bailey and Joshua, is one who would definitely find being at home intolerable, no matter what was provided to make it more palatable. "I'm not a good mother at home," she says. "You wash dishes and clean all day. Looking after children didn't give me much of a buzz."
Work, by comparison, gives her the stimulation she craves. As merchandise manager for Gulf Star Products, makers of the Line 7 brand of sportswear worn by Team New Zealand during the America's Cup races, her job involves meeting top sports people and travelling the world at least twice a year. "There's nothing," she beams, "like seeing an image you've created on sportspeople crossing the finish line."
A self-confessed superwoman, she didn't even stop work after having her first child, Bailey, six years ago. When Bailey was nine weeks old, Trish put her under her arm and headed off on an international buying trip with nannies lined up in Los Angeles, London and Paris. She didn't get further than LA, she now laughs, after lack of sleep and a postnatal hormone rush ended the trip rather abruptly. She admitted defeat and came home. When her son Joshua was born two years later, she made a major concession and took three months off.
Among her friends are mothers whose decisions about mothering cover the range from at home full time, to working part time, to working full time like Trish. Which option is best is a constant source of debate between them, she says. She admits her choice has come in for some criticism: she has been told her children are badly behaved because she's not at home with them. She also recognises that discipline is a problem because the nanny has different standards: Trish claims to be the weak one who just wants peace when she comes home, something the children play on.
Another crisis loomed when she was told at a parent-teacher meeting that Bailey's peer-group social skills were underdeveloped. Trish thought that might be the outcome of weekends which are treated strictly as intensive family time and don't include having other children over to play: "I sat back and thought oh no, I'm doing it all wrong." She tried to re-evaluate everything and thought she would stay home. "But then," she says, "I would be a shocker because I'd get no time for me."
She also suffers guilt, especially when the children beg her to stay home. "As they get older," she says, "it gets harder on your mind." Maybe when the children are teenagers, she ponders, she will stay home. Yet, on the positive side, the financial benefits are a major consideration and her work means the children have experiences - such as a regular overseas holiday utilising her accumulated air miles - that they wouldn't have otherwise. Saving for their future education is also a goal. "I don't know what's right or wrong," she says. "You've just got to go with your gut feeling of what makes you a better person to bring up the whole road show."
At the other end of the spectrum is Tania Beumelburg, a mother of eight who has made a conscious decision to be at home. She is acutely aware of the view some of the mothers in paid work she knows have of her. "The general impression," she says with a self-effacing smile, "is that I must be feeble minded. Either that or I hear, 'What do you do all day?' As if there's spare time! It indicates a particular perspective on the world that's quite prevalent - unless you're in paid employment it's not recognised."
Tania Beumelburg, a mother of eight: "The question I have is: what comes first? It's priorities. If you take the mothering role seriously enough, children have to be the major consideration - above yourself. I think it's a more fulfilling career than any other you care to mention."
Not that she's advocating mothers be paid: "I think that misses the point. It's putting the role of mother on the same footing as work, and I don't think it is. It's a separate category that's priceless. A value can't be placed on it. Unfortunately the role of mother is denigrated in modern culture."
Tania and her husband, Carl, laughingly describe themselves as "rabid Christians" and are also homeschooling four of the children - a responsibility they didn't seek, but one they felt was forced on them by what they saw as the failings of the state education system and the cost, which they couldn't meet, of private Christian schools. The children, therefore, are clearly at the centre of their lives. "It's not just a Christian view of a woman's role, but what it is to be a woman and a mother," says Beumelburg. "I worry that the feminist movement has put us in the same race as men. We have our own race. We have a separate and distinct nature. We ourselves haven't looked at it closely enough - the unique thing mothers can do."
Of mothers who return to work she has this to say: "I question whether everything has been considered in their decision - the whole role of mother, how special it is, how difficult it is, how incredibly important it is. But I wouldn't begrudge anyone an opportunity [to pursue a paid career]. Young mothers I know have this feeling that as soon as they stay home they're brain-dead.
But does that mean mothers who take up paid work aren't good mothers? "What is it to be a good mother?" she muses. "It's a question of degrees. That question of what is a good mother still escapes me. I want to stress that people underrate and underestimate what being a mother can be - including other mothers. I think the responsibility is bigger than in any other career - shaping the next generation."
Nowhere is the importance of having mother at home stressed more than at Playcentre, yet it is becoming the field on which the to-work-or-not-to-work battle is being waged. The Playcentre movement was established in New Zealand during World War II by two mothers, Jean Wood and Inge Smithells, who met on a beach holiday and discussed their common problems as mothers of preschoolers. They formulated plans for a centre where mothers could take their children and where they could get expert supervision and advice and share in new developments in early childhood education. It became a voluntary organisation run as a co-operative. "Child initiated play" and "the importance of parents as educators of their own children" became the cornerstones of Playcentre philosophy.
Today, Playcentre literature says that for 45 years the movement has "met the changing needs of families". Mothers in paid employment may disagree. One full-time mother tells of attending a Playcentre meeting at which the pros and cons of participating in Playcentre were being discussed: "One of the co-ordinators suggested it was 'so lovely to be in Playcentre with women who believe in staying in the home'; that it was 'a reprieve from women who want to go back to work' and it was 'so good to see women putting the family first'." This mother was horrified and countered with the suggestion, "Isn't it good that women have more choices now?" But that view, she was made to feel, was unacceptable.
Because Playcentre requires that one parent attend two morning sessions each week - as well as monthly meetings and training sessions on child's play where each parent earns points towards a qualification - mothers in paid work simply cannot participate. Many who have sent their child along with the nanny have soon found they've been sent straight home - depending on how strictly that rule is enforced by each Playcentre. Likewise, many a novice mother is startled to learn that Playcentre isn't a place she can drop her child off. And she may feel, on being told the rules, that a judgment is being made.
"It is Playcentre philosophy that the mother is the best thing," says Diane Berkley, a spokesperson for the Auckland Playcentre Association. "It could be either parent," she adds. "Playcentre is keen on fathers. The issue of nannies we would take case by case." Berkley, a mother of four who lives in Blockhouse Bay, has relished the full-time mothering role. "I didn't feel any pressure to get a job, because this is what I'm doing now," she says. "I haven't had to justify being a full-time mother, I haven't had to debate it. At Playcentre you have like-minded people. You don't come up against a lot of opposition."
Diane Berkley, a spokesperson for the Auckland Playcentre Association, says of mothers who are in paid employment: "They're missing the milestones of their children's lives. They're missing the child's first steps; missing him saying two words together, and saying their career and money is more important."
Ironically, involvement in Playcentre has in the past been a launch pad for the successful careers of some of today's leading women - Dame Catherine Tizard to name one. Now, however, it is the stronghold for women who are determined not to have careers outside the home - at least not while their children still live there. And that is why Playcentre is important to them, because, as Diane Berkley has found, it is an environment where their decision to mother full time is supported and validated when that decision is not validated by modern society.
Not every mother at home, however, has bought into the entire Playcentre-style package. For Joanna Legat, the decision to be at home has been forced on her more by circumstances. Since the birth of her daughter Elizabeth five years ago, she has metamorphosed into a full-time mother, but it wasn't what she planned and it made her rare among her peer group. "I've had to create a new group of friends," she says. "Most people I see regularly now have children and are at home during the day.
"I didn't have to justify my decision [to stay home] to old friends. Many were themselves reluctant to go to work and there's one who works full time but wishes she didn't have to. It's the people I haven't seen for a while... it's a conversation-stopper when they ask, 'What do you do?' You answer and they say 'Oh'. Before I had kids I was the one saying 'Oh'. I used to think women who didn't re-enter the work force didn't quite cut it." She was initially determined she would go back to work, despite the advice from the older women in her office who lectured her with comments like: "Oh no dear, you mustn't. It's such a short time."
But that plan was thwarted when she was informed that hers wasn't the sort of job that could be held open while she was on maternity leave. She recognised, further, that it wasn't, in any event, a job which would accommodate her responsibilities to a one-year-old; she would need a different style of job. Staying home in the meantime didn't sit easily with her: "When Elizabeth was younger I felt it more keenly. I wasn't confident and clear that what I was doing was the best. I found the baby stage difficult. I was 32 when I had Elizabeth and I found stepping back and handing myself over didn't come easily to me."
Initially, "to keep my brain active", she involved herself in local committees - anything that didn't involve children. But after a time she realised her time at home with children would be a finite thing and she came to resent spending that precious time on voluntary activities. As time went on, full-time mothering became a more rewarding experience. "The things I've got out of parenting are not what I'd expected. I'm fascinated by child development and psychology and what makes us who we are. If I hadn't had children I'd have had a different view of life. It's a stretch to walk patiently with a child and see the world as they do. The benefit is you gain an opportunity to see the world in another way which can mean a change in what you value."
When Elizabeth was nine months old, Joanna was offered another job but, after calculating the cost of child care, "plus your revamped wardrobe to replace the T -shirts you've been living in and all the takeaway meals and instant dinners", she figured she would come out with $7,000 a year. Not enough, she reasoned, to warrant the pressures her working would bring on the family, given that her husband, Geoff, worked long hours and might not be available for back-up if she was stuck in a meeting.
"I couldn't rely on him to be home," she says. "He often works weekends as well, so we would have had a hideous family life." Instead she decided to have her second child quickly - although William didn't come as soon as she would have liked - get her mothering years out of the way and then return to work, outside the home. "Some days it's absolutely terrible," she says. "They're sick, the weather's bad, I think 'God, I'd give anything to walk out the door with my briefcase and leave someone else to do all this'." But she has also been motivated to stay home for her children's early years by firm views, based on her primary teacher training, about the importance of the first three years of a child's life when, she believes, stability and continuity of care are vital. "They don't get that with nannies," she says, "who tend to change every year, or every six months. I think that's quite harmful. And children need lots of input, they need to be in the world. When they're with nannies, or in crèches, they can be quite divorced from the community."
Now that her youngest is two-and-a-half, she feels ready to work outside the home again, "if I could find a way to make it easy for us". Yet she makes no judgments about mothers who are back at work (outside the home) soon after their child's birth. "I do feel sorry for those who are regretful about it, though, because it's a time you can't recover, and it's fleeting. For the women who have to go back to work, the decision is easier: it's strictly an economic decision, so there's not so much angst about it. I don't see myself as a full-time parent much longer. By the time my second child is three I feel my work's done. It's a diminishing need. If you've got school-aged kids, how can you be fully occupied? I'd be disappointed and angry if in a few years' time I was still at home."
So where does that leave the mother at home whose children are reaching school age but who is more than happy to continue being at home? Increasingly having to grasp for convincing justifications, because, as Claire Aumonier notes, women, like men, are competitive.
And where does it leave the children? All of the mothers spoken to emphasized their children's happiness and each was convinced that their style of mothering suited their child best. Many referred vaguely to snatches of research which supported their choice. Conversely, each was aware that whatever choice they made, someone, somewhere, was going to criticise them for it and that as the years go by the most acerbic criticism was going to come from their increasingly articulate children.
As Tania Beumelburg says with a smile: "As a mother, whether you work or you're at home, you're going to screw up your kids anyway - you can't avoid it."
Source: Metro December 1995
Is telecommuting the answer? Apparently not...
Telecommuting Gets Stuck in the Slow Lane
by Stephanie Armour
Work from home loses appeal for harried employees, skeptical bosses though telecommuters often work longer hours to prove they're productive.
Cynthia Nelson had what seemed like the ideal work arrangement: an office just a few steps from her bedroom. But she hated it. Sure, she could answer email in her bathrobe and take two-hour lunches on a whim. But she couldn't strike up impromptu chats with colleagues. She couldn't escape work because her office was also her home. And she really couldn't handle the way her former employer left her feeling so "out of sight, out of mind."
"They literally forgot about me. They put in this computer system and forgot to put me on the network," says Nelson, 30, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who quit that public relations job. "It didn't work with them at all."
Mounting studies and new research suggest that telecommuting isn't living up to its expectations. Reports show employees who telecommute believe the arrangements actually hurt family life and career advancement. A number of supervisors are so fed up with telecommuting-related problems that they're revoking the arrangements. Companies such as AT&T are seeing the number of telecommuting workers stagnate or even decline.
"Remember in the 1950s they said we'd all drive flying cars and work from home? Well we're not there yet," says Steven MacLaughlin, chief knowledge officer at Indianapolis-based Expidant, an interactive services firm that has chosen not to use telecommuting. "You can't replace the need to solve a problem by working together, face to face. When you don't have that, it causes problems, and people are just starting to realise that."
Telecommuting hasn't grown at the clip many experts first predicted in the 1970s, according to the latest government statistics. There were 21 million workers in 1997 who did some work at home as part of their primary jobs, a number that grew by just 1.5 million since 1991, according to the Department of Labor. That reflects only people who did work at home and not necessarily those who were involved in telecommuting arrangements for which they were paid. Only 3.6 million employees, or about 3.3% of all wage and salary workers, were paid in 1997 for working at home.
There are several reasons telecommuting hasn't become more widespread, experts say.
Not a Quick Fix
All of this is bad news to the politicians and business leaders who are increasingly hoping that telecommuting will be a quick fix for the country's traffic woes and an elixir for employees struggling with work and family demands.
It hasn't worked for the federal government, which hoped to set up telecommuting centres where employees could work remotely. Now the government is considering halting funding for all but one of the 16 centres around the Washington, DC metropolitan area, according to a General Services Administration report. By 1998, total funding for the centres had reached $11 million. But the program benefits fewer than 400 of the area's 350,000 federal employees.
Many of the other expectations about telecommuting have yet to come true. Remember predictions that telecommuting would be increasingly in demand from workers? In reality, some companies aren't offering programs because workers don't want them. More than 60% of companies that lack a formal telecommuting program say that's because there's no employee demand, according to a survey by the American Management Association.
Remember predictions that telecommuting would be accepted by managers who saw it as a tool to boost productivity? In reality, many supervisors still aren't convinced. More that a quarter of supervisors polled say the arrangement can compromise job performance, according to a February 2001 study by Menlo Park, California-based staffing services firm OfficeTeam. Just 21% thought they were more productive.
And remember predictions that telecommuting would ease family and work stress? In reality, many employees who work from home are less satisfied with their ability to balance demands than are those who schlep to offices.
Just 46% of telecommuters say they're satisfied or very satisfied with their lives compared with about 60% of non-telecommuters. The research project by the Boston College's Center for Work & Family also found telecommuters are more likely to work on vacations. Managers and employees agree telecommuters are less likely to have positive relationships with co-workers and less likely to get the same salary increases as peers.
Telecommuters often feel as though they have to work more to prove they are being productive, says Leon Litchfield, who directed the study of 1,353 employees. To be sure, many workers do value telecommuting, and some companies say they've reaped substantial savings through reduced turnover, increased productivity, and lower real estate costs. Some groups maintain that telecommuting is growing and will be the work arrangement of the future.
But significant barriers remain. Supervisors continue to be reluctant to adopt telecommuting arrangements, even when employment rates are low.
Paul Higgins, CEO of Line 56 in Los Angeles, opposes telecommunicating at his business-to business news commerce analysis firm. "It's not the culture I want to create, and it's a fallacy that they're happier employees," says Higgins, who rejected one worker's request to telecommute once a week after having a child. "If you only want to work four days a week, I'd probably say 'Okay.' But don't put it as, 'I want to just telecommute one day a week.' There are 17 other staff with kids under 3 who'd like to have time to play with their family, too."
Saama Technologies, a consulting firm based in San Jose, California, gave telecommuting a try but decided to discontinue the program. "We tried to go that route with our salespeople, and it hasn't worked at all," says Lisa Leigh, corporate vice president. "They got more done when they came in. We found they weren't getting as much done" at home.
Among the reservations expressed by employers:
Even unequivocal fans of telecommuting admit it can be harder than many non-telecommuters realise. Sara Jane Whitman, 24, just started working at home several days a week. She spends her time on the computer, as well as caring for her newborn, Isabella.
When Isabella Coos
The problem? She never knows when Isabella may coo or start crying - the kind of distraction she never had to think about when working from her public relations' New York-based marketing office. "I enjoy it, but phone calls can be a challenge," says Whitman, a senior account executive at Pepper-Com. "I can be on the phone with a client. You never know when she could start screaming."
And there is a strong belief among many senior executives that today's workplace, with its emphasis on teamwork and fast-paced change, isn't conducive to telecommuting unless there is a compelling business need. As senior vice president of CardinalCommerce, a Cleveland-based authentication platform provider, Kendall Myles says telecommuting just doesn't work at his company. "There's a certain esprit de corps you develop working together," says Myles. "It's difficult to celebrate when you get that big order if everyone's not together."
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